Addressing the Confederate Elephant in the Room

by Liz Allen
Friday+Saturday editor

     After reading the recent article about Millsaps’ role in the Civil Rights era, which dubbed us “the bravest little school in America,” I felt an initial swelling of school pride. But now, I have to wonder, how do we continue this legacy today?

     Millsaps has definitely made many positive strides throughout its history that would put us among the most progressive institutions in Mississippi. Our current commitment to social justice in our community is one of the reasons I pride myself on being a Major. But when I take a step back, I believe this is not the message we broadcast to the world.

     I’m looking at you, Major Millsaps. What bothers me about our mascot is that he, the symbolic embodiment of our institution, is at odds with the story we tell about ourselves. Our mascot is basically a purple-clad cousin of Ole Miss’ Colonel Reb, who was replaced after much controversy in 2010. The similarities abound—the hat, uniform, even down to the mustache and goatee. These are the stereotypical images associated with the Mississippi Confederacy, the ones that call to mind our checkered past, and support the national assumption about backwardness and racism in our state.

We are projecting this same image—the only difference is that Ole Miss was far more explicit, flaunting its Confederate past, while we only imply it. We all can deduce the Confederate status of our mascot, even as it is never actually said. It’s as if we are hoping no one will notice if we don’t say it out loud.

It is undeniable that Major Reuben Webster Millsaps was a Confederate major, who likely shared the opinions of other wealthy white Confederate Mississippians at the time—which is far from the progressive ideals we claim to believe in. We cannot change who founded our school or the society he lived in, but we can change our attitude towards him.

As it stands, our relationship with the Major suggests an attitude of ignoring the problematic parts of our past. Besides his name and face, I knew little to nothing about our founder. Only after searching the bowels of the Millsaps website did I find a biography that acknowledged the “extensive service in the Confederate army” that earned him his rank. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the gift that he bestowed in creating our college, and I don’t take issue with our founding. My issue is with our silence about him.

In fact, I fear this silence, because it treads a dangerous line, one that encourages us to ignore our other flaws and shortcomings, to glide over controversial or less-than-ideal parts of our history—especially our racial history. In order to be the bravest little school in America, we need to acknowledge not only our successes but also our failings, and talk through them with open, honest dialogue.

     Millsaps is still far from perfect. We still have many issues of race relations to work through. To do so, we cannot come from a mindset that turns a blind eye to problems, or is stuck in a past it won’t acknowledge, like our mascot suggests. The current Major does not represent the Millsaps I am proud of, a Millsaps that is the progressive school in Mississippi, a Millsaps that is inclusive and forward-thinking. Unfortunately, the presented image is what people see first, not our actions, no matter how progressive we might claim to be. I suggest that rather than a mascot that flaunts our unspoken past, we need an image that proclaims our positive present, and pushes us to a braver future.